The Young Soapmaker
As I walked back to town I wondered what it would be like when I returned. When I got to the outskirts of town I met some villagers who told me that all remaining Jews were taken to the “Vigon”. The Vigon was a large fenced in area just at the edge of town. It was often used for special events such as festivals, parades and bands. I was met by my father, my uncle and two sisters. My jubilance at seeing them quickly dissolved as I was suddenly overcome by uncontrolled deep audible grief because I realized I would never again see my mother. My father did all he could to console me. He, himself, showed little emotion. I was unaccustomed to this softer, gentler side of him. To me he was always stern and I feared his disapproving look more than any kind of punishment he could impose on me. It took the war for me to lose this fear of my father. I never saw that stern side of him again. I saw only a silent forlorn man.
Several hundred Jews were assembled in the Vigon. These were the people who were sent back that morning from the transport by tne Mayor. Since I was already there, the Yudenrat leader asked me to formally join the group by submitting my kent card which was added to the pile of other cards. That night we all slept on the grassy field of the Vigon. Within a day many Jews in hiding joined us. Others followed when they felt there would be no retribution. We were expected to return to work. Work and home was the same area for us since the two similar buildings were adjacent to each other so when we returned to the factory we found my aunt and two cousins who hid from the transport in our home. My paternal grandmother at age eighty four refused to go in the transport. She also refused to go into hiding. She was taken away by the authorities and never heard from again.
The “Jewish quarters,” an open ghetto without fences was set up in the poorest part of town within a cluster of streets where all the houses were vacated. This relatively small area was intended to house about two thousand Jews. No Jew was allowed to live outside of the ghetto. Although most of the adults workedthey were expected to return to the ghetto each night. These rules were enforced by the Judenrat and Jewish police. We lived in very crowded conditions. In spite of the cramped quaters, people generally got along guite well. They tried to help each other. There was a bond between these surviving Jews. People who in war times did not get along were now protective of each other. We lived this way on Chefsky Street for about four months.
I was always visible, I didn’t iike being confined. I was present wherever there was activity. I was known to the Gestapo as “the young soapmaker”. One day I was stopped on the street by a German Gestapo policeman from the criminal department. I knew him well from the soap factory. We was wearing his Gestapo uniform. He told me he had confidential information he wanted me to know. He told me that all Jews will have to leave town tomorrow for another transport. I immediately spread the news to every Jew in sight. I rushed home to tell my father and my uncle. The three o£ us decided that the best course of action would be to stay in the factory that night and not return to the ghetto. We were a crew of four who worked regularly in the factory. In addition to my father, my uncle and myself, there was the young man Lippig who was engaged to my uncle’s daughter. The factory had an upstairs attic in which we set up my aunt, my two sisters, my two cousins, Lippig’s sister, plus two more cousins, an elderly woman and her daughter. We were twelve in all in the house. My friend Mottle Noodle also hid in the shed on our property, unknown to my family. I feared they might feel we were taking on too much risk for a non blood relative. I couldn’t take the chance, that the family might object. So I told no one. Now I had to maneuver and sneak around with my own family in order to keep Mottle safe and with supplies.
The following morning we had confirmation that all the Jews in the ghetto including the two Jewish policemen from Yudenrat were taken away in a transport. For about two days we believed we were the only Jews in town to survive. We didn’t know what to do. There was much anguished discussion about what we should do. It was impossible to hide because everyone in town knew us. We enlisted help from a local villager who served as messenger and to give us information about what was going on until we could figure out our next step. At the end of two days we decided to give ourselves up and we sent the messenger to inform the Mayor that we were here. Only the work crew gave themselves up to the Gestapo. The rest, eight people in the attic and Mottle Noodle in the shed, remained in hiding without even knowing about each other’s existence.
That afternoon the assistant to the Mayor and the Chief of Gestapo and two other officers appeared in the backyard of the factory, “We’ll be shot on the spot” was my immediate thought. The Mayor, although outraged, cooly questioned why we didn’t join the transport. My uncle stepped in as spokesman and I helped too. We fabricated a story. We told him that we were boiling a big vat of soap and had some problems with the process and this delayed us into the night. By morning, we told them, we already knew that all the Jews were taken away. The Chief of Gestapo responded in German, “For the time being you could remain alive” he said matter of factly and then more sternly, “until we decide what to do with you, stay here. Don’t go anywhere.”
In a few days we found other Jews in town. We found out that the two Yudenrat leaders escaped from the train as I did from the previous transport. We heard they paid a huge sum of money to the Gestapo to have themselves freed. Technically we were also freed by the Mayor so that a few days later when the Yudenrat police went around town to ferret Jews out of hiding, we were not included when these Jews were asked to assumble at the jail house later in the evening.
About three hundred and fifty Jews came to the jailhouse. At the jailhouse, the Gestapo conducted a selection and pulled fifty Jews from the crowd to be freed. Included in this group was Dr. Orenstein and his family, his three brothers and a sister, all of whom would be a strong presence on Yahtkova street. Dr. Orenstein’s parents were left behind in the jailhouse. Yuleg Brandt from the Yudenrat was also freed. He became the leader of these selected Jews on Yahtkova Street. All the rest – the Jews in the jailhouse, were taken away to an army camp where they were machine gunned onto an open already prepared mass grave. The Gestapo continued a relentless search for hidden Jews whom they brought to the jail house daily and hauled off on trucks to be massacred by machine guns.
The selected group that was freed from the jailhouse was settled on Yahtkova Street. The search for Jews continued. Those who were freed through special circumstances were let go and they too came to live on Yahtkova street. These Jews were usually freed by a top official and no one would cross a top official. They were known to everyone and not killed. The non freed Jews rounded up daily, were much larger in numbers. These people were brought to the jailhouse daily and taken off on trucks and machine gunned to death. People I knew, some still surviving today, were burying people they knew daily. That was their job.
In one way or another the group grew to officially two hundred Jews who were settled on Yahtkova street. There were quite a few others hidden in attics and cellars along Yahtkova street, but the core group, the official two hundred freed Jews had a specific assignment. They were broken into groups of fifty, each headed by different Gestapo officers. Their assignment was to sort clothing and valuables from the abandoned Jewish homes. These items were then brought to a central warehouse.
While restraints were lifted for our factory crew, the others in our factory building continued to be in hiding. Since they were not apprehended and they were not freed their lives continued to be in constant jeopardy. Of the four of us from the factory crew it was I, who was the only one who wanted to be out and around. This was acceptable to everyone since we needed supplies and we needed information about what was going on.
In this climate money was very important because money would not only buy you life sustaining necessities but frequently your very life, the freedom to survive. Money was not a problem for us. In spite of our constrained lives, the factory continued to do business and profits were greater than ever. Even though normal life as we once knew it no longer existed, the need for our product expanded as other sources of supply were cut off. So it was that we sold to the farmers market, to local villagers and to a Ukrainian agent who sold huge guantities of our soap illegally on the black market. In this way we accumulated large guantities of money. We hid large sums of money in bars of soap. Much of this money was used for rescue purposes.
Since I was the outside person of our group, I had the connections with others, a sort of underground network of information, usually through people from Yahtkova street. This is how I found out which of the Gestapo officers or local authority were ready to take a bribe or who was ready to shoot you in the head. It was always a risk because things changed by the moment. I made deals with Gestapo officers I knew, depending on what I thought they wanted or needed. Some I told I knew someone who was a good worker. Some were offered money. This is how I was able to release people from the attic one by one. This is how my aunt was freed with her two daughters. My two sisters were freed. Lippig’s sister was freed. Mottle Noodle was freed. All went to live on Yahtkova Street. Within about three weeks most of those hidden were freed. I was successful with all of them in the house except for an elderly woman cousin and her daughter. She was a woman in her late seventies and she simply said she didn’t want to live anymore. She walked out into the street and was taken away to be shot. I was also unsuccessful in rescuing her daughter. I promised them lots of money, and soap too. I told them she had a lot of hidden money, I begged. It didn’t work. Nothing worked.
Even though my personal freedom was liberalized, it was never safe to be on the streets. Still I took a lot of chances, unnecessary chances. I felt very isolated with only the four people in the factory. I went to Yahtkova street at least twice a day. Even though we were allowed to go to Yahtkova street, it was dangerous and I walked all over town for no particular reason. I was stopped daily by Wagner, a particularly vicious Nazi. He joked with me “should I throw you into the river” he would laush. He could have done it too. He did brutal things daily. My feeling was that he let me go because I was freed by the Chief of Gestapo and the Mayor. Those freed were usually not killed but he would not have been punished if he decided to kill me. He didn’t kill me I thought because I amused him. He was amused by my dilemma because I couldn’t bear being confined but feared being killed. People who came out of hiding were killed but the freed were so few they were known to everyone.
Another time during one of my frequent “illegal” forays through town, I was met by Demont, another Gestapo officer who dir ected me towards a group that was being formed. I tried to get out of it by telling him I had to return to the factory but he ordered me to “shut up” and whipped me across the face with a leather whip. I was directed onto a nearby wagon with some other Jews. We were guarded by a Gestapo policeman and driven by a Polish farmer to a nearby field. We were told to get out of the wagon and we were each handed a shovel. I looked over to less than a hundred feet. There was a truck load of families, many of whom I knew.
Now I knew what my job was to be. Without preliminaries they opened gunfire and shot all those men, women and children, fifty, sixty, seventy people shot just like that. Then there was silence. The silence was deafening. The sun shone. The birds chirped. We will probably be shot next, I thought, after we do the job. Ebner, the younger man, then about thirty walked onto the freshly thrown dirt. The fresh hot blood splashed onto his boots. As he felt some movement he fired his rifle into the ground again and again and again. Today I still remember those faces. I cannot forget those faces.
During this peiod, for about nine months, my haven had become Yahtkova Street. This is where I got away from the grimness of the war. This is where I got away from my depressed elders. This is where I experienced a reasonably normal life. Within a short walk, only a few minutes from the factory I was on Yahtkova Street. It teemed with life. Two, three times a day I went to Yabtkova street. This is where I ate my meals and spent my evenings. This is where I had friends my age and girlfriends. We were one big happy family. Everybody ate together and drank together. Life was cheap. Life was meaningless. Today you live, tomorrow you die, senselessly at someone’s whim, without emotion. Just like that. We knew we would all soon be dead. We had only the moment. We had only each other. We comforted each other. We held each other. No one really expected to survive. On Yahtkova Street I found a girlfriend whom I had known before. It was a joyous moment when we found each other alive For a short time we were close, then Chana met someone else and I met Chankah. My big love on Yahtkova street was Chankah. We were very close throughout the Yahtkova street period. Chankah was Dr. Orenstein’s youngest sister so I became a frequent visitor with the Orenstein family. The problem was that I did not get along with Dr. Orenstein so he did not want to see me as a companion for his sister. Using his influence on Yahtkova street he had me assigned to a job that kept me working nights as night guard to guard a structure that was being built for the new Gestapo guarters. This then resulted in stolen moments and secret meetings with Chankah.
Daily episodes continued to assault us. Some episodes made a greater impact than others, like when Yuleg Brandt and Rabinowitz who represented the Jews as leaders of Yahtkova Street were summoned by the Gestapo. Brandt’s sister came to me weeping bitterly, hoping that I could help because I knew so many of the Gestapo officers and had made similar successful deals with them. I could do nothing. They were shot at the Jewish cemetary. The reason given was that they were hiding Jews. After this Dr. Orenstein became the acknowledged leader. He had already been distributing the labor as I well remember my job as the night guard.
I was becoming aware of great feelings of unease, always expecting something to happen, expecting to be killed any day. One day I was summoned to the Gestapo quarters. You do not come back alive after you are summoned to Gestapo guarters but what choice did I have? I went to see what they wanted. After passing through all the armed security into the very official headquarters of the German Gestapo I was directed towards Ebner, the most notorious murderer of the Nazi Gestapo. He was sitting behind a large desk in full formal gear. Memories of him stomping on the fresh blood of my people flooded my mind. ” I’m going on furlough tomorrow,” he informed me. “I have to have a dozen pre-war Palmolive soaps” he commanded. “Bring it to me or else…” I never really heard the exact words. I was too frightened. I didn’t know what to do. We never made this kind of soap. I talked to my father and my uncle, they couldn’t help. I talked to Dr. Orenstein. Dr. Orenstein contacted two key people and within a few hours they had the soap. This time the assignment to sort Jewish victims belongings saved us.
“Get out of here” was the only comment Ebner made to me when I delivered the soap to him the following morning. That was music to my ears. Still the feeling of impending doom would not go away. It might have been because of the contrasts in my life. A part of me was loving life and enjoyed just being alive. I had a group of friends who were like brothers and sisters to me. I had a girlfriend. I felt very close to the adults from my parent’s generation. I felt close to them all. At the same time people I knew were being killed and were dying daily. It was hard to take this all in.
One morning in the late fall the Gestapo officers informed us that we were over the quota on Yahtkova Street: the official two hundred grew as people came out of hiding daily. They took sixty women from the group. It was never really clear to us until then that the plan was to maintain us at two hundred. There were still people hiding on Yahtkova street that the Gestapo was not aware of. The Gestapo assured us that these women would be taken to a work camp. My two sisters were part of that group. It was a shock and I feared that they would be killed. Yet I was also hopeful because they were not killed in town and in about two months we received a postcard from Camp Travnick where my sisters were taken. Camp Travnick was really a factory that made uniforms for the Army. Now it was used as a work camp for forty three thousand women who made these uniforms. While we were on Yahtkova street, we had regular contact from my sisters. It was around this time also that news got around that the Gestapo officer Ebner was killed by a group of partisans operating in a nearby village. Ebner went to investigate this partisan activity and was shot in a barn by a partisan hiding behind a cow while Ebner was searching for them. It was also reported that a lot of villagers in the area were killed after that incident.
One day soon after these episodes the Gestapo officer who warned me about the second transport again stopped me on the street and informed me that the next day we will be shipped out to a labor camp. “This time you will not be shot, he assured me.” I believed him. I wanted to believe him. When we went to the jailhouse that morning as we did each morning for the work distribution, I let everyone know about this as I had done in the past. We could have escaped then. Yet no one escaped.
Somehow the Gestapo found out that I was spreading this information. They wanted to know how I knew this but I never revealed my source. This enraged them and I began to fear for my life especially since they searched for money in the factory. They never found our money since it was well hidden in bars of soap and sewn into the lining of a jacket. They released my father and my uncle. They let me go. That same day half the peop’e on Yahtkova street were taken in a transport to Budzin – a labor camp. I was part of that group. The other half arrived a week later. Some of those in the transport were people who were in hiding in the attic and cellas of Yahtkova street for many months. Though they were apprehended now for the last time, they were not penalized. This was encouraging.
We boarded an open cattle train guarded by two SS men. There was no shooting. That was a relief. We were still alive. Leaving Yahtkova Street was particularly sad for me. When I left Yahtkova Street I lost the last illusion of a normal life. I lost the last illusion of freedom. I lost my youth. I also lost contact with my sisters in Camp Travnick and never heard from them again. By now I lost almost my entire family. It was early fall, some time in September 1943, around the time of the Jewish New Year. I was eighteen years old.
The trip to Budzin was just a few hours. With me on this journey was my father, my uncle, my aunt and their two daughters. The light security with only one guard reassured us that this was probably not a death camp. We had further reassurance when we got to our destination and saw inmates walking around the camp with their Jewish overseers. There were really no clearcut indications but we had a feeling and it was a relief. We were still alive and there were people walking around the camp. We were greeted by the commandant of the camp and with him were some Lithuanian guards and some Jewish policemen, or more correctly overseers. We were ordered to surrender all jewelry and money. To set an example and to scare us into compliance a man was shot in the crowd among us. I did not see this because amidst the confusion one of the Jewish darted in and out of the group muttering in Hebrew that we should not give up our valuables. The jacket I was wearing had paper bills and a bar of soap in which gold was hidden. I flung my jacket to the ground away from me hoping it would not be noticed. It wasn’t. When we were led into the barracks by the Jewish policeman I picked up my jacket and followed him with the rest of the group.
In no time it became apparent that money was a great commodity in this camp. The camp was really an airplane factory known as Henkel Verk. The factory was manned by the polish residents from the local towns and villages who were the regular emplyees. We were a source cheap manpower to fill in the labor needed due to wartime demands and lack of people otherwise involved with war activities. The job assignments were left with the Jewish overseers who were formerly part of the Polish army. They welcomed the opportunity to “make a deal” where in exchange for jewelry or money you were assigned to relatively light labor or to jobs that accessed you to some basic need such as food, medical supplies or services. These Jewish overseers pretty much ran the internal affairs .of the camp. With the money I had we were able to get my aunt a kitchen job in which she peeled potatoes all day. Because of this job she somehow managed to cook a nourishing soup for the family on a fairly regular basis. Those were the facts of camp life. I had an office job working with blueprints even though I had no skill or training in this work. My father was assigned to the clothes cleaning section which meant he deloused clothes. This turned out to be the best period of the wartime era for my father because his duties were relatively light and the two learned rabbis who were assigned to work with him were constantly engaged in religious and philosophical discussions which he enjoyed listening to and participating in. It gave my father some escape, something to hold onto from his other world.
There were a lot of other “business deals” in the camp that were generated by the Polish employees who were a steady source of food and supplies for those who could pay. With our food supply reassured that was a big worry off our minds. We were able to give our meager rations to other inmates. The camp housed men and women in separate barracks. Within camp confines we were relatively unregimented. I met a new group of young people and we socialized nightly. This state of comparative safety did not last long because of a number of incidents that made us realize that war events were escalating.
One frightening experience that stands out in my mind was when the Lithuanian guards suspected that I had money and summoned me to be searched and questioned. I was told to remove all my clothes and as I started to undress the young woman who was my friend from our hometown, was working in that office as a cleaning maid. She began to talk to the soldiers and I knew she was trying to distract them. My money was folded into a hanky that was wrapped and tied around my thigh. I was undressing at their orders and was already stripped to the waist. It was just at that point that one of the guards turned to me and told me to get out.
Another incident occured about two months after our arrival to Budzin. In November 1943 several men from our town tried to escape and were shot to death. The critical event at Budzin, however, was when we were warned by the guards not to go out of the barracks also on a evening in November 1943. We were told not to worry because we would be hearing sparodic shooting that night. That was because there were a lot of partisans in the area they explained. As it turned out we heard no shooting but the following day we found out that all the people in the neighboring camps from the district of Lublin were annihilated because there was an uprising in Sorbibor where the inmates of Sorbibor killed eighteen Gestapo officers. Our camp was saved because the German owner of Henkel Vork went to the Lublin authorities and pleaded for us, stating he needed the labor. People have said that Mr. Henkel was a compassionate man and his motive was humanitarian. I never met him.
After that incident there was enough reason to believe that this calmness would not last. It was springtime. Passover time. My father and his Rabbi friends somehow managed to bake matzoes. Quite an accomplishment under these circumstances. I knew these types of activities distracted my father from the horrors of the war and our living circumstances. Along with these distractions he relinquished his role as head of the family and the decision making role he held with the family. That role shifted to me in a very natural way. There was an unspoken understanding that whatever decisions I made the rest of the family would follow. We knew the war would soon be over. The Russians were nearing Poland. Sooner or later we would be evacuated from this camp. In a morning role call in the early sping of 1944 they asked for volunteers for another camp also with airplane work. There were many volunteers. I volunteered and my father, my uncle, my aunt and cousins followed. Budzin did not exist much longer after we left but I never forgave myself for going to Mielez.
Copyright © 1999, The Young Soapmaker.